My grandmothers were both born in what is now known as North Korea. Of course, it was just Korea back then and both my grandmothers died here in the United States, far away from the war-torn country they watched on their tv sets. While they got to rear their grandchildren with things like wall-to-wall carpeting, VCRs, endless varieties of fresh fruit, and backyards to themselves, their worn hands held all the stories of poverty that very few in the US could ever tell.
They were farmers. Above all things, to them, wealth was a function of growing things–lots of things. So, when my mother’s mother first immigrated to the little town of Skokie, Illinois, she nearly wept at the expanse of our backyard. Within a couple summers, we had stalks of golden corn lining the perimeter, squash the size of fairy tales tucked into the corners, chilis peeking out from the eaves, and, her crown jewel, a patch of dark earth with neat rows of perilla leaves lifting their bright green faces to the sun.
It was my job to pick the leaves and bring them back to the kitchen. By then, the stalks were so tall, I could imagine wandering through a thicket of alien trees, far far away from my home, Skokie, or even Earth. Until, of course, my grandmother’s voice would peal through the summer air like an old familiar tune and reel me back,
“Sunyoung-ah! Hurry back!”
What I wouldn’t give to have a backyard of my own with a patch of perilla leaves as tall as I am. What I wouldn’t give to smell the sweet burning scent of gochugaru on my grandmother’s dark hands as she pickled the leaves I had only just picked for her. What I wouldn’t give to hear my hahl-muh-nee’s voice, tugging at my heart and pulling me back into the warmth of our kitchen.
What I wouldn’t give…